Riding the Coattails of Modern Medicine

Marina Ziemnick

CounterCurrent: Week of 1/9


At the start of every academic year, tens of thousands of bright-eyed students begin their journey through medical school by donning their first-ever white coat. The moment is so significant that most medical schools host a White Coat Ceremony during orientation, in which students receive their white coat, put it on in front of their friends, family, and the medical community, and recite the Hippocratic Oath. The obligation to care for each and every patient is front and center during the ceremony, and the white coat serves as an emblem of the trust that these future doctors must earn from their patients.

According to the national organization White Coats for Black Lives (WC4BL), this obligation isn’t enough. Since its founding in 2014, WC4BL has been working to attach a new ideological agenda to the tails of the white coat—and it appears it is succeeding.

WC4BL’s mission is radical and far-reaching. In its own words, its “job” is “1) dismantling dominant, exploitative systems in the United States, which are largely reliant on anti-Black racism, colonialism, cisheteropatriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism; and 2) rebuilding a future that supports the health and well-being of marginalized communities.” It wants medical students and practitioners across the country to lead the charge and use their white coats to push for a whole host of progressive policies, all laid out nicely in its “Vision and Values” document.

Some of the policies WC4BL endorses are par for the course for a left-leaning medical organization, such as establishing universal healthcare and increasing access to abortion. But others are only tangentially related to the medical field, if at all: establishing universal child care and universal paid parental leave; abolishing prisons, ICE, and immigrant detention; decriminalizing sex work and drug use; deprivatizing water; dissolving oil and gas industries; and returning land to indigenous communities—and that’s just a sample.

On top of that, the WC4BL value statement is riddled with alarming claims that undermine the very foundation of modern medical practice. It decries Western medicine as “an exclusionary field that privileges wealthy, white, cisgender men” and declares that “physicians have utilized violence to oust women and femme healers [and] monopolize medical care and knowledge.” It openly rejects the “colonial hierarchy that places doctors as the experts on a person’s health” while simultaneously reminding its members that “[b]lame must be shifted from individuals/decisions…to the systems of oppression that contribute to disease manifestation, risk, and management.”

White Coats for Black Lives has made it quite clear that it intends to “dismantle” the “hierarchical, professionalized medical practice,” and it won’t stop until it’s finished. 

In this week’s featured article, National Association of Scholars Research Associate John Sailer traces WC4BL’s influence in medical schools across the country. The organization has been quite busy these past couple years, and it’s seeing no shortage of results:

At UC Davis, WC4BL presented recommendations and its Racial Justice Report Card to the School of Medicine. The administration found them “largely feasible” and responded by creating the Administrative Action Plan to Address Racial Justice. The plan institutionalized, among other things, “a clear system to ensure that perpetrators of racial microaggressions are required to complete corrective action.” Meantime, the school of medicine at the University of Utah received demands from its chapter of WC4BL on June 12, 2020. By December 9, the School of Medicine’s Executive Committee had approved a long version of those demands, declaring that “Racism is a Public Health Crisis” and updating student evaluations to solicit feedback on the “cultural humility” of faculty.

At Columbia University, WC4BL played a part in inspiring the medical school’s anti-racism initiative. One top recommendation in Columbia’s plan involves creating “faculty development” run by “individuals grounded in critical race theory.” At Michigan Medicine, the WC4BL chapter sent a letter demanding a curriculum redesign that employs “an intersectional framework that incorporates critical race theory.” Michigan Medicine adopted that demand almost verbatim, adding only that the new curriculum should draw from the work of Ibram X. Kendi.

The medical schools that Sailer highlights in his article are only those that have openly acquiesced to WC4BL’s demands. The organization’s scope of influence is undoubtedly even wider than suggested here, and if the past two years are any indicator, it will only grow.

Let’s hope that America’s white coats resist the social justice siren song and remain dedicated to caring for patients’ medical needs first and foremost—regardless of what they’re taught in medical school. America’s health and wellbeing depends on them.

Until next week.


CounterCurrent is the National Association of Scholars’ weekly newsletter, written by Communications Associate Marina Ziemnick. To subscribe, update your email preferences here.

Image: impulsQ, Public Domain

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